Monday, December 31, 2018

The Moths and the Murmuration

‘Tis (or ‘twas) the season to deplore the overuse of ‘tis, and summarize the highlights of the past year. In one of these two all-important tasks, I have fallen short.
So, having failed to produce a pithy Christmas card regaling friends and family with our adventures and misadventures of 2018, I thought I could at least bake something.

Not that most of you lucky souls will taste what I baked. It is the concept of baking that I imagined as an antidote to the lack of Christmas letter.

There I was in the kitchen, our lovely kitchen with its three big windows facing west, overlooking the field, the river, and the geologically thoughtful and imposing Palisades. In a certain cabinet I found two bars of fancy chocolate. How long had they been there? Had they been invaded and nibbled by pantry moths? Do pantry moths even like chocolate? They had not. But the question was valid, because on the way to discovering the chocolate, I came across a package of almonds that had been very much invaded and inhabited by moths. It was quite revolting, all the masticated almond crumbs globbed together with the spider-webby stuff the pantry moths leave behind. I took the whole thing outside and gave it the chickens, who love grubs and bugs and squirming larvae.
I started wondering about pantry moths. Evolutionarily, biologically, what exactly is their purpose?
I have no answer to that question.

Initially when I started researching pantry moths, I assumed my moths were the Mediterranean variety, whose ancestors, like mine, were immigrants to North America. (Also known as invasive species.)

That was wrong. My pantry moths, and most pantry moths, are Indianmeal moths. Indianmeal moths are not from India. They should not be confused with almond moths or raison moths, even when they munch on almonds and raisins with gusto. They also don’t mind eating cardboard or plastic if that is the best route to grains or nuts.
One of the things I was most delighted to learn about these moths, my moths and your moths, was that the females “oviposit on the second night after emergence. This is because they require a few hours for the sperm to move from the bursa copulatrix to the vestibulum, where fertilization occurs”.
How often do you get to use the word oviposit? Not enough, in my opinion. The same goes for copulatrix.
[Yes, I know we are dispensing with such gender specific, that is to say, feminized, words such as actress, waitress and aviatrix, but I hope we can keep copulatrix. Just because. ]
And when they do oviposit, the female moths oviposit between 116 and 678 eggs, in a food source, such as my almonds or whole wheat flour. Between exactly 116 and 678 eggs. I checked three sources, both online and in a real book, and they all gave those exact same numbers for the minimum and maximum number of eggs.

Why so much about pantry moths?
Because it seems especially important, at this time of year (birthday of Jesus, shutdown of the US government, wildfires, floods, holidays that conspire to break your heart, long nights, and then, arbitrarily, a new year with a new number) to recognize the depredations of age, usage, indifference, betrayal, neglect, breakage. Hungry moths.

There I was, checking out the moth carnage in the baking supply cabinet, when the light in the kitchen changed. Nothing alarming, just a shadow passing.
It was not a shadow at all. (Not my pictures.)
Outside, right in front of me standing at the window, thousands of starlings flew together from the branches of the birch tree up and over the field. They swooped together, they rose together, they dipped and swooped upward again. This, I later learned, is called “scale-free correlation”. Together they filled the sky, not completely, not as a dark blob, but as a giant pixelated moving wave. Together they curled and landed on the field, and together they alit and returned to the sky. I don’t know how long this Murmuration of Starlings lasted. They swirled and pulsated; their shape ballooned and then narrowed as if a belt were cinching a waist. They grew large and small. I didn’t have my camera, and any way, I couldn’t have captured this sky-filling avian ballet. Watch this on You Tube for an idea. For as long as they flew, ascended, curled back and dropped to the field, lifted in perfect synchronicity from the field and flew in wider circles, I watched. I felt hopeful.
Finally, they swooped northward and then flew in a wide parabola and headed southwest towards the river. I waited, in case they would circle back. But that was it, they went elsewhere.

Who are these starlings, and why do they do what they do?
For starters, starlings, like my ancestors and most of yours, were immigrants to these shores. Though my grandfather, a German cotton broker, did not arrive here with a Shakespearean agenda. Starlings did.
On a snowy day in 1860, Eugene Schieffelin, a German immigrant, released 60 European starlings in Central Park. It was his wish to introduce into North America all the birds mentioned by the plays of Shakespeare. (Clearly, the concept of invasive species was not yet au courant.) Ironically, Schieffelin succeeded with starlings, who get one puny mention in all of Shakespeare, whereas the more frequently mentioned skylarks and nightingales never adapted to North America.
When Schieffelin died in 1906, his obituary in the New York Times listed his memberships in the NY Genealogical and Biological Society, the NY Zoological Society, the American Acclimatization Society, the Union Club, the Society of Colonial Wars, the St Nicholas Club and the St Nicholas Society (Seriously. Both.) There was no mention of the starlings.

These days starlings are considered a nuisance, pests, and hazards. And of course, an invasive species.
According to the Coordinator for the USDA Airports Wildlife Hazards Program, starlings are “lean and mean. In the industry they're often called feathered bullets.”

Along with the enlargement of my vocabulary with oviposit and copulatrix, I was delighted to discover that our government supports an Airports Wildlife Hazards Program.
And so with this, I end the year, and wish you all a Happy, Healthy and Sane 2019.

Friday, November 2, 2018

In living color.

There is so much that is unfair and wretched in the world, that I hesitate to describe the unfairness I encountered late last night, reading The New Yorker. But I will.

It was an article by Margaret Talbot about the discomfiting and often disregarded fact that the ancient Greek statues and Greek buildings were not pristine white. They were painted. Painted colors. Those lustrous white marble torsos, those pure Ionic capitals, those Classic pediments, gleaming white under the Mediterranean sun. They do not represent what the Greeks created, what the ancient Greeks saw each day. “The idea that the ancients disdained bright colors “is the most common misconception about Western aesthetics in the history of Western art.””
It was not a misconception held by my mother. Years ago, as long as I can recall, she knew that the ancient Greeks and Romans painted their statues and facades. Not only did she know it, she insisted on it. She drilled into us that they were painted, that they were anything but pristine white marble. They were in fact polychromatic, lively, bright, even gaudy. If we, her children, learned anything from our mother (and we certainly learned much) we learned about the polychromatic Greek statuary. Also fenestration.
The unfairness lies in the timing of this wonderful article. My mother will not read this article. She will not enjoy the satisfaction of having known of ancient poly-chromaticism all along. She will not make multiple photocopies of the article to send to all her children and selected other relatives and friends, even though we have explained to her multiple times about the merits of simply emailing a link to a given article, and thereby saving paper, postage, etc.
When I read this article about the painted Greek statues, all I wanted to do was talk to my mother, to revel with her in this affirmation of what she had been telling us all along.

But I will not talk to my mother about this article. She is still here, but she is gone. The mother who was so bossy and confident and correct about colors, is gone. The mother who believed that all her grandchildren needed to know that the large front window at the Orchard was a Palladian window, and what that meant, is gone. The mother who encouraged me to paint, just below the kitchen molding, a wide band of a certain intense blue, Izniak tile blue, she is gone. Benjamin Moore, not having the benefit of my mother’s color knowledge, called it “Big Mountain Blue”. However named, the blue is still there, and it looks marvelous. She was so right about that blue.

As an architectural historian, and also a color consultant, my mother made it her business to know what colors were ‘appropriate’ and ‘historically correct’ for your house, your living room, even your bathrooms. In New England, where the slavish devotion to white clapboard approaches cult status, there were brave souls who strove for something more, something with color, and they paid my mother. They paid her real consulting fees to tell them what historically appropriate colors they should paint their houses.
I enjoyed this fact, because of course my mother told me what to do, for free. Gratis. Without a fee, my mother told me what color to paint my house, what color I should dye my hair (I balked, and prevailed), and what color clothing would suit my sallow Belgian complexion. About paint colors, she was invariably right. That is, she chose wonderful colors that
I would never have had the courage, or imagination, to choose. She steered me away from pastels, and I have never looked back.

The current article in the New Yorker, which I recommend, makes an additional point about the painting of Greek statues that even my mother could not have predicted*. Slithering in, on ancient polychromatic cat feet, are political implications. “Some white supremacists have been drawn to classical studies out of a desire to affirm what they imagine to be an unblemished lineage of white Western culture extending back to the Greeks. When they are told that their understanding of classical history is flawed, they often get testy.”**

My mother still knows her colors, some of them, most of the time. She remains very fond of blue.

*Though I may be not properly crediting her. Another thing my mother always insisted on, in the matter of representational art, was that Jesus was not ‘white’. My mother grew up in Cairo. She loved the Middle East. She was well aware that a young man from Galilee was not likely to be the paleface so revered in Western iconography.


Wednesday, October 31, 2018

My Rant about Black Walnuts and their Drupes

Have I ranted about the black walnut* missile attacks before? Most likely. Most likely I do so on a biannual basis. Specifically, during mast years.
It’s been a great year for black walnuts, Juglans nigra, and for squirrels.** It has been a tragic year for my driveway, my back porch, and for CSB’s windshield.

Yes, I know that the black walnut tree is native, and native plants are good. I also know that the wood of black walnut trees is beautiful and valuable.

My gripe is with the fruits of the tree: the drupes. ***

We have tried, really tried, to find uses for black walnuts, to justify their existence, and in particular justify their voluminous existence in front of my house. You should never, ever, on any planet, on any continent, plant a black walnut tree near your house or driveway. Because, as Richard Powers says in The Overstory, they are “Trees that bomb the ground so only their young can grow.” What he doesn’t say is that their bombs can stain the wood on your back porch, puncture of your car, cause concussions, and sound like fireworks when they hit the driveway.

The problem with the black walnut drupes is exacerbated during wet and windy weather, the autumnal storms which we are experiencing in unprecedented profusion. With the rain the black walnuts become saturated and heavier, and with the wind the branches flail about and broadcast the black walnuts. Here at Let it Bee farm they bombard the back porch where they splatter on impact and stain not only the wooden planks but the white clapboard to a height of over 8 feet. They pour down on any patch of dirt aspiring to grow anything but Juglans nigra. They fall on the driveway by the thousands; and they attack any car foolish enough to be parked within the dripline. These foolish cars end up with pockmarked roofs and hoods, and recently, a shattered windshield. When cars drive over the black walnuts on the driveway – because we can’t spend every minute of every day shoveling them up with an industrial strength snow shovel – the bursting of the drupes sounds like machine gun fire.

Why do we put up with this tree, in the bosom of our abode? Exactly how idiotic are we? Would not a normal, well-adjusted, rational person chop the tree down, stack up the wood, and plant a benign azalea there instead? I often ask myself: what would a normal, well-adjusted person do in this circumstance [take your pick: recalcitrant chickens, political crises, randy squirrels on the roof, dementia]?
I often bemoan the phenomenon in electoral politics whereby huge swaths of the voting public appear to vote against their own best interests.
Yet here we are, living under the tyranny of the Juglans nigra, every year, and especially every other or mast year, complaining bitterly about the mess and the noise and threat of concussion. We could chop the tree down. CSB’s chain saw is not big enough, but there are plenty for excellent arborists who would happily come and take down this old tree, in stages, at some cost. We could even defray the cost of having the tree taken down by selling the wood: according to the all-knowing Internet, a single tree can be worth $20,000.

But we don’t chop it down, and we will not. Because it is a tree that belongs to this continent that has already spent (possibly) one hundred years growing in that spot. I have not spent one hundred years doing anything consistently.

As for justifying the black walnut’s existence in our particular spot, I read recently in Peter Wohlleben’s wonderful The Hidden Life of Trees, that the same compound (Juglone - a natural herbicide) that prevents other plants from growing in its vicinity, is considered so unpleasant by mosquitoes that “Garden lovers are often advised to put a bench under a canopy of walnuts….where they will have the least chance of being bitten by mosquitoes.” He makes no mention of the danger of sitting on that bench in the autumn, when the drupes are hailing down. I have to admit that we are rarely afflicted by mosquitoes when dining on the back porch all summer long.

*I will make a point of referring to the black walnuts that populate my yard as black walnuts, to distinguish them from the walnuts you buy in the grocery store and put in brownies, or not, depending on your familial preferences, which are European walnuts, Juglans regia, also of the Juglandaceae family, but so much easier to open.

**Factoid: Black walnuts make up 10% of the diet of an eastern squirrel. That is true in many places, except my yard, where they make up at least 50%.

***Drupes are “ fleshy fruits with thin skin and a central stone containing the seed”
This word is so delightful, and so much fun to say aloud, that it almost reconciles me to the Assault of the Drupes. But no, it doesn’t really. Other excellent words related to drupes are: drupaceous, drupelets**** and indehiscent.

*****My favorite of the drupe set of words.

Monday, May 21, 2018

Springtime on the Front Porch, tucked inside the Boxwood

April 24May 4May 7May 10May 13May 14May 15May 16May 17May 18May 20 The fledglings have flown. Here lies the empty nest.

Monday, May 14, 2018

Choose a Title

During recent meetings about Leigh Fibers, textile waste processing company in Spartanburg, SC, I learned quite a lot about the challenges of the recycling industry. Nothing is easy when you are dealing with junk.

You do realize that the cheaper virgin materials are, the less like likely industries are to recycle or buy recycled products? For example, when oil is cheap, the interest in recycling used polypropylene drops through the trapdoor.

That is just one of the many depressing facts I learned in our 17th floor conference room.

But, honoring the delightful signage on the factory floor that a decade ago gave me Sort Quench, and Dump, I gathered a few other random phrases from the arcane world of recycling and manufacturing, always looking for interesting titles. Titles for what? That remains to be seen.
These are what I came with. I welcome your comments, and favorites.







Wednesday, April 25, 2018

Why Kentucky? Why the Falklands?

Like certain sexually transmitted diseases, the archive that is the pile of still-unsorted papers from the Orchard has proved to be the Gift that keeps on Giving.

Yes, we moved Mom out of the Orchard 3 years ago, and we sold the house 2 years ago. But, in her valiant effort to empty the house in time for the sale, my sister took hundreds of pounds of unsorted files and papers back to Maine with her, to sort at leisure. A very funny concept of leisure, it is true.

Over the years some of us have enjoyed the wide variety of weird solicitations that come in over the transom for my mother. And for the past 3 years my sister and I have been fielding, ambushing, and then jettisoning said weird solicitations.

We were pretty inured to supplications from Little Sisters of this and that, the Needy Orphans of Cairo, as well as the Fund to Save the Gothic Revival Outhouses of Western Massachusetts, or the Steering Committee for 2035 - Celebrating 400 Years as Bucket-Town, even the Society for the Reinstatement of New Belgium in the New World. We thought nothing could surprise us.
Wrong, again.
My sister just shared with me this personalized solicitation that my mother received in 1982. And then saved for the next 30+ years.

Why Kentucky and the Falklands? Yes, I know about conflict between Argentina and the British. I just don't know what Kentucky has to do with it, or why. Thus, I have wasted several hours researching the two regions and am no closer to an answer. But I do now know a few things about Kentucky and the Falklands.

While the population of the Falklands hovers around the 3,000 mark, Kentucky has 4.4 million inhabitants: in both cases most of the residents trace their ancestors to the British Isles.

Kentucky has more miles of navigable rivers than any other state in the US. It has also the two largest man-made lakes east of the Mississippi, and the longest cave system in the US. The Falklands are 0% water, but – predictably – are entirely surrounded the Atlantic Ocean.

Kentucky has horse racing, bourbon, tobacco, coal, and Kentucky Fried Chicken. The Falklands have sheep. Kentucky produces 95% of the world’s bourbon. The Falklands have five varieties of penguins (King, Gentoo, Rockhopper, Macaroni and Magellanic) and some very large albatross colonies.

The entirety of the Falkland Island print media consists of The Teaberry Express and The Penguin News. Kentucky has colorfully-named conflicts: The Beaver Wars of the 1670’s, and the Black Patch Tobacco Wars of the twentieth century.

The Kentucky state seal features two men facing each other in what we can only hope is friendship; one is wearing buckskins, the other is wearing formal tails. The Falkland Islands seem to have two coats of arms: one depicts a sheep, while the other pictures a somewhat misshapen seal.

It is unclear whether my mother sent money to the Kentucky Committee for the Falkland Islands. Who was this person, this Kentuckian, so obsessed with the valiant Falklanders? And why should anyone else care? His solicitation strikes me as equivalent to me hitting up everyone I am connected to on Linked In and everyone they are connected to, for the Fund to Pay Groundskeepers for the Holy Wells of Dubious Historicity in Brittany and Wales.

Wednesday, April 18, 2018

The Pleasure of Random Reading

I’ve written about it before, a year ago more or less, but it is no less true now than then, that one of the most pleasurable aspects of a week spent in Aquiares is reading at random.

It would not be an overstatement to say that reading is an enormous, and an enormously important, part of my life.

Much of my reading is project oriented. For instance, I have lately been reading Hungarian novels because I have created a character in my novel who is Hungarian. I have never been to Hungary, not do I know much about Hungary (current politics are rather unfortunate, so I read), but I believe that through novels I will gain an understanding of what it is to be Hungarian. Hence: Szabo, Esterhazy, Banffy and several whose names I cannot spell.

Likewise, with a reading group led by the remarkable and remarkably Proustian Anka Muhlstein, I am making my way through Proust’s In Search of Lost Time (about 60 pages to go), which led me to Chateaubriand, my latest crush. Also to Proust and the Squid, which isn’t really about Proust but about reading itself.

I particularly like guide books and reference books. Anything about reptiles and snakes in Costa Rica is appreciated.

The existence of this blog notwithstanding, I rarely read on a screen, especially small screens. I always have a small paperback in my handbag, because you never know when you will be stuck in a traffic jam or an airport or the checkout line at Costco. (Unlike Foodtown, where the magazine stand allows me to catch up on the peccadillos of celebrities I have never heard of.)

I feel about reading books the way others might feel about running, or eating chocolate: a non-reading life is not worth living.

So when I arrive at Aquiares, after making sure the volcano is still smoking, the first place I go is the bookshelf. Volcan Turrialba, seen from the Esperanza patio, and closer up, from the road to Irazu.
This past visit I discovered a novel by the poet James Schuyler, Alfred and Guinevere, about siblings who spend the summer with their grandmother and Uncle Saul, and are largely left to their own devices. It is simply brilliant. Then I picked up John Buchan’s Greenmantle and got about 50 pages into it before I realized it wasn’t necessary to continue; a little stiff-upper-lip, self-congratulatory, Brittania-rules-the-waves, can go a very long way. It felt perfectly acceptable to abandon Richard Hannay to his heroism, and turn to Barbara Pym’s Quartet in Autumn. This story of four single people, two men and two woman, who work together in an office that will soon become redundant, and their circumscribed lives, is rendered with exquisite and often painful tenderness and exactitude. My reading was enhanced by the pithy and witty marginalia of another sister-in-law, Fritz. After that I thought I would give mysteries a try, and there was Sue Grafton’s G is for Gullible. No, I just checked on-line, it is G is for Gumshoe. Either way, I couldn’t finish it. Her detective’s earnest heartiness became a little cloying, so I guiltlessly abandoned her and discovered Dawn Powell’s memoir, My Home is Far Away. This was not for the faint of heart. Anyone embarking on step-motherhood could find in those pages the absolute worst you could be. Lastly, I plucked Nabokov’s Transparent Things, which I had most likely read decades ago during my Nabokov-obsessive period, but even so, just in the first 10 pages I had to consult the dictionary four times and was rendered befuddled (I still am) by “unintentional pun” on page 14.* What could be better?

I wasn’t the only one reading at random. My sister-in-law, Sandra, was seen quietly laughing over Alfred and Guinevere, and then devoured several Barbara Pym’s. Even CSB, having dutifully read our book club selection, found some Faulkner that beckoned him. Only my brother Carl resisted the temptations of the bookshelf, and kept plugging along at Hawking’s Brief History of Time. I encouraged this, because I hoped to have him explain it to me. It is not exactly brief. Carl highly recommends the illustrated version.

We left Aquiares sadly, but one consolation was realizing that there remain several books, unchosen by me, that look intriguing. Until next year.

*3 Photos